Italy coronavirus outbreak spreads south as cases spike

VIDEO: REUTERS
People wearing protective masks walk at the Termini train station in Rome, Italy, on Feb 24, 2020.
People wearing protective masks walk at the Termini train station in Rome, Italy, on Feb 24, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PALERMO/ROME (REUTERS, AFP) - Italy’s new coronavirus spread south on Tuesday (Feb 25) to Tuscany and Sicily, as the civil protection agency reported a surge in the number of infected people and Rome convened emergency talks.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has blamed poor management in a hospital in the country’s north for the outbreak, which has caused seven deaths in Italy so far and infected the largest number of people in Europe.

Tuscany reported its first two cases, including one in the tourist destination of Florence, while Sicily marked one: a tourist from the worst-hit Lombardy region, where 212 people have tested positive.

Health ministers from neighbouring countries were to meet in Rome as the number of confirmed infections jumped to 283, with over 50 new cases reported since Monday.

Officials from the World Health Organisation and the European Union were due to meet in Rome on Tuesday to discuss the crisis, which first broke out in China and has now spread to about 30 other countries and territories.

Hundreds of people were confined to their rooms at a Tenerife hotel after an Italian tourist was hospitalised with a suspected case of coronavirus, health officials in the Canary Islands said.

Spanish health authorities said they would test hotel guests and staff.

“We’re told we’re in quarantine due to an Italian doctor testing for the coronavirus. The hotel seems to be acting normally, except that we cannot go out,” guest Christopher Betts said over the phone from his room at the hotel. “There are police cars stationed at all entrances.” 

While no neighbouring country has closed its borders with Italy, several governments have announced additional measures for travellers arriving from Italy, in particular from the two hard-hit northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.

They range from medical screening to recommendations to self-isolate.

The main centre of infection in Italy has been the town of Codogno, a town of some 15,000 people around 60km  to the south of Milan.

Codogno and several others in northern Italy have been put under isolation in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus.

The 38-year-old man dubbed “Patient One” by Italian media was admitted to hospital last Wednesday in Codogno, and it is thought a large number of the cases in the worst-hit region of Lombardy can be traced back to him.

His heavily pregnant wife, several doctors, staff and patients at the hospital are thought to have caught the virus from him.

The health emergency had yielded a fragile political truce between Italy's warring parties, which collapsed late on Monday after Conte blamed for the outbreak on the hospital.

The right-wing, opposition League party, which runs both Lombardy and Veneto, reacted furiously.

Its lower-house speaker Riccardo Molinari said Conte's words were "almost fascist" while the League's economics spokesman Claudio Borghi called the premier "a disgrace to the country".

Lombardy's Governor Attilio Fontana accused Conte of a "desperation strategy... probably trying to attack others to distract attention (from himself)".

 
 
 

BUDGET LEEWAY

As economists warned that the outbreak in Italy would probably tip its already stagnant economy into recession, a senior official said the government may need to call on the EU to offer leeway on its budget targets.

"There are resources the EU can give us in relation to economic events that could lower GDP considerably," Deputy Economy Minister Laura Castelli said in a radio interview with state channel RAI.

Italy has proportionally the highest public debt in the euro zone after Greece and has long struggled to respect the bloc's strict borrowing rules. Conte warned on Monday that the fallout from the outbreak could be "very strong".

Lombardy, the northern region that includes the financial capital Milan, and Veneto together account for about a third of Italy's gross domestic product and half of its exports.

Even before the outbreak of the virus, which triggered a fall of more than 5 per cent on the Milan bourse on Monday, Italy was teetering on the edge of recession, after GDP fell 0.3 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The tourist industry, which accounts for about 13 per cent of GDP, fears a plunge in bookings as the government ordered a clampdown on public events including football matches, cinemas and theatres.

 
 

Milan cathedral was closed to visitors, the Venice carnival, one of the world's premier tourist attractions, was shut early for the first time in decades and airlines began restricting flights to Italy. 

Several upcoming matches in Italian Serie A and the Europa League will be played behind closed doors to combat the spread of the disease.

Production of the latest Mission: Impossible film starring Tom Cruise in Venice has been stopped following the outbreak.

As well as the towns placed under quarantine, Italy's further wide-ranging measures have affected tens of millions of inhabitants in the north of Italy, with schools closed and cultural and sporting events cancelled.

Elsewhere in the country officials have also been recommending precautionary measures.

In Calabria in the south, bishops have asked their worshippers not to make the sign of peace during mass, media reported.

All seven of those who have died so far in Italy were either elderly or had pre-existing medical conditions.